Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Richard Trevithick: Getting Steamy in Cornwall

In The Emperor’s Aeronaut, the character of Loveday Penhale gained some of her knowledge of steam engines from the great Richard Trevithick, a Cornwall native like her. While he doesn’t appear in the book, he was a real-life engineer whose works astonished everyone around him.

As someone with two people with Attention Deficit Disorder in her household (and a profound love for both of them), I can recognize the traits in Richard. One of his biographers called him quick-tempered and impulsive. His teachers called him slow, obstinate, and very inattentive, but he excelled at math. Though it was said he had enthusiasm, his father considered him a loafer. Like father and maternal grandfather, he began working in the tin and copper mines in Cornwall when he was nineteen, but as an engineer, not a miner.

He was simply fascinated by steam power.

Steam engines were already being built when Richard entered the field, but they were low-pressure, often massive, and generally took their own sweet time getting anything done. Other inventors shied away from the potential danger of a high-pressure engine, but not Richard. He kept tinkering until around 1800, he developed the first high-pressure steam engine. He would go on to use it for railway locomotives, an iron-rolling mill, a paddle-wheel barge, steam carriages (yes, he had the first two in the world), steam dredgers, and threshing machine.

He even had the idea for a “steam circus” in London and set up his Catch-Me-Who-Can, a locomotive that ran on a circular track. It was the first locomotive to haul fare-paying passengers, at a shilling a ride, but the soft ground proved incompatible with the engine’s weight, and he had to abandon the scheme.

Though he married at age 26 and had six children, it was his love for inventing that drove him. In 1814, Peruvian silver mines ordered nine of his engines. By 1816, he was off he went to see the New World. Few knew what had happened to him. Sadly, when he returned to England in 1827, he had lost what fortune he’d found. He died in 1833 in Kent.

But his legacy inspired other engineers to continue advancing the steam engine, fueling the Industrial Revolution around the world.

No comments: